Choosing a Healthy Habitat
Sep 07, 2021
What you have in your yard – the grasses, bushes, trees, flowers, and water – determines the wildlife that makes it their home. You can decide who you create space for, and those choices can help create a healthy ecosystem in your backyard that also extends into your community and region.
The changing climate and resulting events such as wildfires, extreme spring heat, and heavy rainfall are already affecting wildlife, including birds and their habitats. Though birds’ ability to migrate makes them more resilient to habitat changes than less dynamic creatures, more than two-thirds of North America’s bird species will be vulnerable to extinction due to range loss if the earth continues to warm following current trends.1
If Earth warms by 3 degrees Celsius, as predicted, Audubon estimates that 13 out of America’s 50 state birds might struggle to live in the states they represent during at least one season of the year, including Minnesota’s common loon; Pennsylvania’s ruffed grouse; the willow ptarmigan in Alaska; the American goldfinch in Washington, Iowa, and New Jersey; the purple finch in New Hampshire; the northern flicker in Alabama; the mountain bluebird in Idaho; the lark bunting in Colorado; the hermit thrush in Vermont; the California quail in California; and the brown thrasher in Georgia.
Birds are an “indicator species,” indicating the health of the environment. What happens to the birds extends to every other creature. As such, what we do to help birds in our backyards will, in turn, impact the health of other animals, including ourselves.
Primarily, your backyard should be an ode to diversity – welcoming to many species. The more complex the species mix, the healthier the habitat. For birds, that would mean ground-feeding, seed-eating and bug-eating birds, as well as woodpeckers and even hawks. Having a mix of birds will give your yard balance: worms and other insects will attract warblers. Flocks of goldfinch will come by if you have a flower garden and feeders.
The best way to encourage this diversity is with a healthy base: soil. Improving soil structure by helping it hold water with compost and other organic soil amendments will provide food for the entire soil food web, including insect-eating birds that help control pests. The resulting rich soil produces a good base for growing healthy plants, and the plants produce food for the birds and other animals. The circle is completed when the animal waste then becomes food for the microbes in your soil; they recycle the nutrients and convert them to a form that plants can use.
Healthy soil does not contain pesticides. It makes no sense to put out bird feeders, bird houses and bird baths and then spread pesticides and herbicides in our yards that kill pollinators and natural insect predators, such as birds, frogs and bats. The recent mysterious bird illness is a prime example of what could happen when we try to rid our yards of certain “pests.” While the cause is still not known, researchers are considering the possibility that pesticides used to kill the cicadas this summer were the cause of the deaths among our beloved songbirds.
We are a part of nature. All of us – plants, birds, and humans – depend on soil health: plants feed on nutrients in soil, we feed on plants. When we choose to create a healthy habitat, starting with a strong foundation, the impact goes well beyond our own backyards.
1National Audubon Society, Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, October 10, 2019